Purgatory: How to best explain it in our modern world?

When one begins to discuss the issue of Purgatory, it is important to recognize there are often a lot of historical and cultural baggage and influences which can hinder the discussion.  I begin with recognizing that this monograph is not intended to dispute any official teachings of the Catholic Church but is intended to re-examine Purgatory considering how to best explain it in our modern world.  As such, this is intended to be theoretical, speculative and exploratory not doctrinal.  I have eliminated footnotes and endnotes except where absolutely necessary.

There are numerous side issues that impact our understanding and discussion of Purgatory: Time, Space, Eternity, Holiness, Efficacy of Prayer, Language, “Official Teachings” vs non-official teachings, etc.

Throughout the centuries, various mystics and others have had private, personal experiences that were shared and handed down.  Some of these experiences describe heaven, hell and purgatory.  As interesting as these shared experiences are, they are not official teachings of the church, even if the visionary was later declared a saint.  Because there are many publications regarding purgatory, most of them non-official, I start with Official Teachings.  The most official document is the Catechism of the Catholic Church on “The Final Purification, or Purgatory”.

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

In beginning, ¶1030 states that “All who die in God’s grace and friendship”.  It should be noted that this does not specify a given faith journey, or even any faith journey.  In fact, in some of the Eucharistic prayers we refer to those whose faith or relationship is known only to God.  The second part refers to the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.  Scripture reminds us that we are called to be holy as the heavenly father is holy.  Most of us would fall short of that high bar. Therefore, Purgatory can be seen as God continuing to reach out to creation to bring about greater holiness.  ¶ 1031 and ¶ 1032 provide scriptural references used to come to the conclusion of Purgatory’s existence.  It is inferred, not explicit.  As someone once pointed out, if we are dirty on the playground and later found clean at the supper table, it is reasonable to assume that at some point we were cleansed of the dirt.  That spiritual cleansing action is purgation, or purgatory.  The visions mentioned earlier, and other thoughts or private revelations, not public revelation, often they remind us of the need to live a holy life.  They can also echo the end of ¶ 1032 to pray for those who have died.  They can also reinforce the understanding that we are connected to those members of our community who have gone before us, and of the three levels of church membership: triumphant, suffering, and militant.

At this point I shift to the subjects of Time, Space and Eternity.  The reason for the shift is to deal with some of the problems people have understanding what purgatory is or is not.  I will return to the praying issue shortly.  What is time?  We waste it; we refer to it; we keep records using it.  What is space?  We live in it; we look out of our world at it; we examine its vastness or miniscule parts with instruments.  What is eternity?  How does it relate to time and space?

Starting with eternity, according to the Catholic Dictionary: in its full sense, duration of being without beginning, succession, or ending. Hence, existing where God exists, which is outside of time and space.  Space is all that exist in the physical and non-physical realm.  Space is a subset of eternity in that it is limited, has a beginning and end and succession.  Time is typically a measurement of the movement within space, having a beginning, succession and ending.  If there is no movement, would there be time? In eternity there is no need for space or time. This distinction is important as all too often people refer to the “time” spent “in” purgatory.  If a person has died and their soul is in the state of purgation prior to entering heaven they are effectively outside of time and space as well, therefore our language is in error when we refer to “time” and “space” in referring to purgatory.  The problem is for may of us it can be difficult to express this understanding, without referring to the existence with which we are familiar, inside time and space.  This is where language, as useful as it is, has its own inherent prejudices and difficulties in expressing a concept that does not fit within the experiences of our existence.  People may refer to Purgatory as a place, when in fact such is erroneously placing the purgation experience within time and space.

At this point I will return to the issue of prayer.  Praying for those who have died.  We live inside time and space.  Numerous people have stated that there is no point to praying for the dead.  I would argue all prayer is efficacious, meaning according to my web search, “successful in producing a desired or intended result.”  In the Church we have the teaching that comes down from the theologian John Dun Scotus regarding the immaculate conception of Mary, and how it was possible. In a nutshell, the grace obtained by Jesus, was applied to Mary at her conception which freed her from original sin, even though Jesus had not yet been born.  This coincides with what I was referring to as time and space as subsets of eternity.  Because God is outside of time and space, the effects of Jesus’ passion and resurrection could be inserted and applied at any point in time.  This is important when it comes to praying for the dead.  As we petition God to be merciful to those who have died, God can take our prayers and apply the efficaciousness to any point in the person’s existence, during life prior to their death, or even after death.  Even though we may not be aware of the effects of our prayers, our prayers today may have had an effect in a person’s life.  The biggest problem most of us have is we want to “see” or be aware of the effects of our prayers.  Here we are called to be like Abraham, who trusted in what God had promised, even though it seemed outrageous at the time.

Now, back to purgatory.  As far as the perennial question about what purgatory is like, the reality is no one really knows, but there are lots of ideas.  Everything from a fire – using the smelting image from precious metals – to a wave of grief for our errors causing the pain attributed to purgatory.  Keep in mind that most of the proposed experiences are based on the earthly human experiences.  If there is no physical body, how does fire fit in?  Can a non-physical soul experience fire or any other form of torture or pain?  In addition, there have been times in the past where some attributed lengths of time in purgatory.  How long is a year or a day if one is outside of time and space?  In theory, purgatory could be as simple as the earthly process of walking through the automatic doors into a store, where we are met with a short blast of heat or cooling.  The Councils of Florence and Trent, expressing fire as mentioned above, were speaking to people who were living in a very different world that we know today.  The earthly concepts may no longer be meaningful or relevant to today’s cultures. 

Remember, Purgatory is inferred in Scripture, not explicit, however, given what Scripture says, Purgatory is a reasonable concept.  As I stated earlier, if we are dirty on the playground and later found clean at the supper table, it is reasonable to assume that at some point we were cleansed of the dirt.  The problem arises when we place purgatory within time and space instead of in eternity.   When we remove it from time and space, then the prayers of Judas Maccabeus and Job, as well as our own, become an important part of our love and concern for others.

Author: yuengerwv

Retired Catholic Priest

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